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Alfie is a young man from the working classes of London. He is confident, charming, totally self-centered and very successful with the ladies; using them for his immediate pleasure without emotional involvement and leaving a trail of emotional devastation. His callousness toward these women contrasts with the delusion that he causes no harm; he is just teaching life's lessons.
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If you are expecting Alfie circa 1966 to be anything like the Hollywood version of 2004 – that is, a half hour rom-com through London with a few saucy gags thrown in - you’ll be mistaken. Swap Jude Law for Michael Caine, New York for London, the remake for the original. This version has bite - and lots of it.
Set in the swinging Sixties, it was released at a time when Britain ruled popular culture, with London at the centre of it all. It was the place to be. And with contraception now readily available, people’s attitudes to sex were changing fast. With the burdens of World War II behind them, this was the generation who embraced a newfound sexual freedom. Men need no longer just fight for their country, they could go out and enjoy themselves. This is Alfie’s world.
Played by the irrepressible Michael Caine, Alfie jumps from woman to woman, leaving jilted lovers in his wake. His moral compass is not so much broken but lost in shrubs in another fumble amongst the bushes. Even the wife of a terminally ill patient is not off limits. Alfie’s “birds” cook him dinner, do his laundry and scrub his floors while under strict orders not to expect any commitment from him. This man is vile and yet, you’ll like him. This is all down to Caine’s performance. With his matter-of-fact asides to camera, he charms you into his world. But unlike in other films where the lead opens his heart when addressing the audience, Alfie appears to be trying to con himself. Suddenly you realise that the only reason he is talking to you, is because no one else will listen. You are all he’s got.
Clearly, the film is a stage adaptation so don’t expect a cinematic experience. Played out mostly in dialogue, Alfie speaks directly to camera throughout and other characters merely play bit parts. The immediacy of the stage is not lost in the film where the cinematography is claustrophobic. A convoluted bar fight set-piece is parachuted in from no where, presumably, for some slapstick action. But, even this cannot hide its stage beginnings. Luckily, through it all, Caine’s charisma shines through.
Where the film does impress is in its lack of vanity. It would have been very easy to make everyone pretty and let Alfie, who appears to be the epitome of Sixties cool, have it all. But Alfie doesn’t. His home is a mess, his health is deteriorating and he goes from job to job. None of this matters in his hedonistic world of girls, girls, girls. However, the women he preys on are not the gorgeously glamorous but - on the whole - plain Janes trying to get a decent start in life. The film does not shirk the heavier moments and an abortion scene will leave you reeling.
Alfie is a fantastically enjoyable romp through Sixties London seen through the eyes of a working class Lothario. Just don’t expect a comfortable ride.